From Montpelier to the Moon
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Reading U.S. history is interesting; visiting significant U.S. historical sights is rewarding; but making U.S. history is exhilarating. I recently enjoyed the first two and now have the opportunity to do all three as I move into my first month as eighth president of Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
It all began with a trip to the small, beautiful Caribbean island of Nevis as part of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) meeting in January. In addition to missing one of the worst snowstorms of the season (don't worry I had to endure the second worst when I returned), my wife and I were fortunate to hear from an array of exceptional speakers on topics ranging from fatherhood to positive psychology to the presidential election.
Just as importantly, we had the opportunity to visit the birthplace of one of America's most exceptional Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Touring the site caused me to reflect upon how this illegitimate child, orphaned at the age of 13, eventually moved to New York to study at what we know today as Columbia University. He became one of George Washington's confidants and served ably as our nation's first Secretary of the Treasury. A man of immense talents, Hamilton is immortalized on the $10 bill. Ironically, it may be easier to travel to Nevis to witness Hamilton's origins first-hand than to purchase a ticket to the hit Broadway hip-hop musical based on his life! But that’s another American story for another day.
A couple of weeks later I found myself traveling south from Washington, DC to Hampden-Sydney College, my former institution located near Richmond, Va., where I took time to visit Montpelier, home of the father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison. The tour included a thoughtful documentary chronicling the prodigious work of our fourth president, not shying away from the fact that he, like many of the signatories of both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, owned slaves.
The visit included time in the bedroom where Madison died as well as time in the library where he contemplated the document men and women of our armed forces swear to "support and defend" with their very lives. You can imagine how poignant the guide's comments were to me, being both an Air Force veteran with time in Afghanistan and the son of an Army veteran who served in—and survived—Vietnam. But as with my time spent at Hamilton's birthplace, standing in the very space where Madison died prompted me to reflect upon the intellectual fearlessness of both men and their living legacies that empower us all today.
I was back at Hampden-Sydney to complete my final week as the school's 24th president when I could not help but think of both James Madison and yet another American patriot, Patrick Henry, both of whom served on the College's original board of trustees. The rightfully proud alumni of Hampden-Sydney affectionately refer to their school as "the Hill," and it has played an important role in America's Revolution, Civil War and Civil Rights movement.
On February 1, I left "the Hill" to become the 8th president of another fine, American institution. Robert Morris University, named for the “financier of the American Revolution,” has humble beginnings. Classes began in 1921 in downtown Pittsburgh, and one the school’s early homes was in the William Penn Hotel. Four decades later, the school opened a campus in its present home in suburban Moon Township (yes, I now live on the "Moon") and became a junior college. In short order, Robert Morris then became a four-year college, and today it is a comprehensive university with more than 5,000 students from all over the globe. Extraordinary stuff!
Thinking back to the arc of Hamilton’s and Madison’s respective paths, I make an easy comparison to that of Robert Morris University. These two men and this institution all represent the boundless opportunities of America's--and indeed the world's--dreams and aspirations. Where does the spark and drive come from to build a representative democracy from a colony? How does a small school where "secretarial candidates entered on the left and accounting candidates entered on the right" grow from trade school to major university?
But this is what America does. If we have learned anything from our history, it is that we have repeatedly defied the odds, dismissed the naysayers, and simply built great and enduring institutions. Like Madison and Hamilton, Robert Morris University is a great American story for our world. But unlike these two great yet flawed men, I believe we at RMU have many of our very best chapters yet to write.